Empty nest: Diverse paths find an American family all in China, then gone

An empty nest fills when an American couple goes to China to work, and finds their trailing offspring with them. But now the Beijing-ensconced parents see their adult kids moving back to the US. 

Courtesy of Debra Bruno
Debra Bruno and her adult daughter, Joanna, eating a meal on a family excursion from their base in China to Hanoi, Vietnam. Bruno's children are leaving China and returning to the United States for graduate school.

I had just returned to a Beijing that was hot, muggy, and so polluted my eyes stung, after a lovely sojourn visiting family and friends in the United States.

My phone rang. It was my daughter, wanting to vent about something. We chatted for a while.

An hour later, my phone rang again. It was my son, welcoming me back to China and wanting to catch up.

There’s certainly nothing odd about a mother chatting with her grown children after a trip. But what’s odd about this is that both of my 20-something children also live in China, a situation that is a happy combination of serendipity and choice. I know many expat families here in Beijing – but all of them are families with school-age children, mainly settled in the city’s suburbs to be near the international schools. The couples our age – let’s just say we’re middle-aged – have grown children who live in other places.

My husband Bob and I get a kick out of seeing the reactions on people’s faces when they ask us if we get to see our children much.

“Yes,” we answer. “They live in China.”

Daniel, our eldest, claims we followed him here, since he was the family pioneer, choosing a job teaching English in China almost five years ago after he graduated from college and bounced around in short-term jobs for a while. It’s been a choice he’s enjoyed, mainly, I suspect, because of the rock-star status he is awarded as a young male from “Meiguo” (Chinese, for USA) teaching in university classrooms full of Chinese college students, mostly female. He now lives in Guangzhou (Beijing is to Guangzhou as New York is to Miami, in terms of distance) but calls and visits frequently.

Joanna, the youngest, followed us. She had also graduated from college and landed a great job, but the prospect of a lifetime of the 9-to-5 grind, daily commutes, and squeezing in adventures in two weeks of paid vacation every year left her thinking that she should explore the world first. So she quit that fantastic job, backpacked around Asia for a month or so with a friend, and landed in our apartment in Beijing for what was supposed to be a short visit. But a month became two months, and I suddenly found her going on job interviews. Before we knew it, she was also teaching English, coming with us on hikes along the Great Wall, and meeting other young expats from the corners of the world. She lived with us for a year until she decided that she needed more privacy, and rented a rare-for-Beijing four-bedroom apartment with three other friends.

Our family adventures remind me of the year we lived in Belgium when the two were teenagers. Then, uprooting Daniel, 16, and Joanna, 13, was tantamount to child abuse in their eyes, and they responded initially with a fairly heavy-duty regime of sulking and door-slamming. But before long they discovered the joys of Europe: buying chocolate crepes a stone’s throw from the Eiffel Tower, skiing in the Alps, eating twelve grapes in the shadow of the Alhambra in Granada as the new year arrived, biking through Holland, riding double-decker buses in London, and gorging on moules-frites in Brussels. Not all was bucolic, of course, since travel with teenagers has its own challenges. I remember one giant fight over the best way to exit the ancient grounds of Pompeii, losing track of them in St. Marie de la Mer and wondering if they had been abducted by gypsies, and feeling frustrated when they seemed to prefer playing their hand-held video games instead of looking at a panel of stunning Rembrandts at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. And there was that memorable meltdown in Avignon when the water park didn’t work out and they accused us of tricking them into going to the Palais des Papes instead.

Mostly, though, that year brought us closer as a family at a period when some families tend to drift apart.

And now we’ve had another chance, one that few families get. This time it’s Asia to explore, both as a family of four and with each of the kids alone: biking alongside rice paddies in Vietnam, feeding crackers to petite deer in Japan, snorkeling in the Philippines, running a race through Angkor Wat in Cambodia. We’ve celebrated birthday dinners both in our apartment and at Beijing’s best spots. We’ve stared at more Buddhas than I ever expected to see in two lifetimes.

Now, though, this brief idyll is about to end. Both kids are heading back to the US this summer to begin new chapters in their lives in the form of grad school. Gone will be the funny texts from Joanna: a Starbucks that had run out of coffee, commentary on Downton Abbey. Gone will be our weekly manicures. Like the chats many parents can have with their adolescents when they’re in the car, sitting in a nail parlor was an opportunity for us to chat about just about anything because the manicurists didn’t speak English. And I’ll have to figure out the time difference between Beijing and Denver when I want my son to explain the nuances of the latest episode of “Game of Thrones.”

I know that lots of parents face the struggle with both the empty nest and with boomerang children. In our case, it’s not that the nest is empty but that we’ve moved the nest. And I can hardly call them boomerang children if we’re all in this Asian adventure together.

In any event, it was fun while it lasted. And if someone had told me five years ago that we’d all be living in China in the year 2013, I wouldn’t have believed it. We won’t pass this way again, but this unexpected episode makes me hopeful that life has a few more surprises in store.

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